Carlton: A dying man and airline with an eye on the bottom line

It is a sign of the brutal economic times that we have learned to put up with the indignities of low-cost airline travel.

By now we are used to being herded like cattle or seated with our knees at our chins. We pay by the bag with an upcharge for the weight of an extra shoelace. Soon we could be charged per peanut, and in the restroom, soap is going to cost you.

Don't laugh. Just when you think you've heard the absurd limits of how far an airline might go for profits over people comes the story of a dying Clearwater man and the airline that would deny him even a small show of compassion.

As the Times' Elizabeth Behrman reported, 76-year-old Jerry Meekins bought a ticket on Spirit Airlines last month to see his daughter in New Jersey after she has surgery in May.

A Vietnam veteran and former police officer, Meekins has long known he has cancer. But he says that after he bought that ticket his doctors told him his immune system was so compromised he could no longer fly. He says he was told he has a few months to live.

No question, that $197 ticket was nonrefundable. But surely, given the extreme (and extremely sad) circumstances, Spirit would be willing to listen and refund what must in the scheme of things be a drop in the bucket.

Nope. Meekins offered proof from his oncologist, hospice, even his prepaid funeral arrangements. Still nope. An airline spokesperson expressed sympathy but said rules are rules. Lots of people in tough circumstances want refunds, and who are they to judge?

The airline also helpfully pointed out that travel insurance is available when you buy your ticket. Which in Meekins' case sounds like: Too bad, so sad.

And to the rest of us: Pony up for insurance so this won't happen to you.

Also, the airline said, making exceptions would cause fares to go up for the rest of us.

But how come Spirit can't judge on a case-by-case basis the difference between a change of plans and a dying man, as some other airlines do?

Here is a grim fact about Spirit's policy: Should Meekins die before his flight, then he would be entitled to some money back.

How reasonable. How comforting.

How I do not want to spend my money at Spirit Airlines.

I am a big believer in personal boycotts, in not buying gas or dinner at businesses that have policies or actions that offend me. This is easy when you have dozens of gas stations and restaurants around to pick from, but much harder when it comes to spending big bucks on travel in a bad economy.

No doubt the bean-counters at Spirit, an airline that makes about a third of its revenue from fees it charges, know this.

Now you might think Spirit would be swayed by the backlash after this story went global, with readers disapproving from as far away as Britain's Daily Mail.

Spirit remains unmoved, at least by the looks of an email I got Thursday.

"Unfortunately," a spokeswoman wrote, "we all face unexpected curves as part of life." Yes, she said that.

When the story broke, Meekins said, "If they call it 'Spirit Airlines,' where is their spirit?"

Good question. Though what's lacking here seems to have a lot more to do with heart.

Carlton: A dying man and airline with an eye on the bottom line 04/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 26, 2012 9:33pm]

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